It’s now early January, but it might as well still be August.
For USF President Judy Genshaft, five months of legal maneuvering and court action have done nothing to change the situation, as she decides what to do with professor Sami Al-Arian.
Al-Arian begins another semester on paid leave. Genshaft placed him there Sept. 28, 2001, because of death threats that followed a Sept. 26 appearance on The O’Reilly Factor television show. Termination of the professor was recommended by the USF Board of Trustees in a meeting Dec. 19, 2001, but Genshaft delayed a decision on the case until August 2002.
Genshaft, to the surprise of many, did not announce his termination in August. Instead, she decided to file the case in court. The move was an attempt, she said, to determine the First Amendment ramifications of the case, and make “absolutely sure” that termination would be the proper move. Al-Arian claimed that by filing in court, Genshaft, in effect, usurped the authority of the collective bargaining agreement, which would have, in the end, allowed for arbitration. Genshaft countered that because he was still officially an employee of the university and had not been terminated, the grievance process laid out in the collective bargaining agreement was not yet an option.
Genshaft was widely criticized for her decision to take the case to court. Some called it a stalling tactic. Al-Arian said he was sure he would prevail.
All of those arguments came to an abrupt end Dec. 15, when U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bucklew released her ruling on a motion by Al-Arian’s attorneys to dismiss the case. Bucklew agreed with Al-Arian that the court was not the proper forum for the case at this time.
The decision left Genshaft with none of the answers she said she was seeking in the case. In addition, she is now faced with the same decision as in August: Fire Al-Arian and begin the grievance process or reinstate him and allow a man BOT chairman Dick Beard has called a “terrorist” and a “cancer” back on campus.
Genshaft has one other option. She can, within 30 days, appeal Bucklew’s ruling to a higher court. But Genshaft’s decision will have to be made quickly. According to media relations director Michael Reich, Genshaft went on vacation around the time of the ruling and did not return until today. That leaves her slightly more than a week to weigh her options before she must decide whether to press on with an appeal or make a decision about termination.
With either choice, Genshaft stands to take a lot of criticism and the university will probably find itself in court again. That might not sit well with some as the threat of yet another round of budget cuts looms on the horizon.
According to USF media relations coordinator Marsha Strickhouser, the university has, to date, spent $82,000 in legal fees on the Al-Arian matter, and $30,000 since September. An appeal will cost thousands more. A termination will possibly result in further lawsuits and still thousands more spent in legal fees.
But if Genshaft chooses to let the deadline pass and not appeal, she will probably face pressure to decide quickly whether to fire Al-Arian. According to Reich, Al-Arian is drawing a salary of about $67,000. That means that since his suspension, Al-Arian has earned roughly $84,000 while doing no work. Will USF’s faculty, already reeling from budget cuts and unhappy about both Genshaft’s large raise and the perceived threat to their rights, put up with another long delay?
Whether it will be in the coming weeks or months down the road, when Genshaft does make her final decision, the effects will be felt nationwide. If Genshaft does choose to fire Al-Arian, the American Association of University Professors, which has been nipping at the university’s heels for months, will probably act to censure USF. If this were to happen, the only way USF could remove itself from the censure list would either be by proving Al-Arian’s terrorist ties and thus validating the firing or by apologizing to the professor it has attacked for so long.
The on-campus ramifications of a firing could also be quite devastating. There will probably be the expected protests from Al-Arian supporters. But Genshaft may also lose the already dwindling support of her faculty. An unhappy faculty can have a negative impact on an institution. It hurts recruiting and spreads a bad reputation to universities across the country.
If Genshaft reinstates Al-Arian, which, judging by the statements of the BOT, seems unlikely, a whole new group of protesters will probably express their displeasure. The death threats may resume and parents may feel unsafe sending their children to USF.
But as this decision process spills over into 2003, there may be another twist in the case on the horizon. As of Tuesday, 16 emergency rules take the place of the faculty collective bargaining agreement. In that agreement, Al-Arian’s grievance process is laid out.
USF faculty leaders have claimed for months that wording in the emergency rules allows the university to fire professors for pretty much anything. Furthermore, those leaders, most notably faculty union president Roy Weatherford, have said the BOT is attempting to reduce faculty rights, or, as Weatherford put it, trying to “screw” them.
Does Genshaft have a plan to utilize the new, looser rules to aid in her firing of Al-Arian? Certainly, if she did cite new rules, Al-Arian would argue in court that his suspension began under the collective bargaining agreement and therefore those rules should not apply. But, now that the Florida Board of Education has been disbanded, it is unclear to whom Al-Arian would appeal his firing. He could, in fact, be forced to appeal to the same BOT that recommended his termination.
A decision of some form should come in the next few weeks, providing for a little more clarification in the case. But only one aspect of the Al-Arian case can be speculated about with relative certainty. It will, in all likelihood, be a controversy that rages for several more months at a cost of a substantial amount of money to the university, as well as damage an image which, in the minds of many, is already tarnished.